High school volunteers Paige Keim, Gage Norris, and Zoe Gonzalez plant an eastern red cedar tree at the Black River Audubon Park in Elyria, Ohio. Photo: Allison Farrand

Native Plants

Once a Polluted Mess, Now a Healthy Riverside Park

A native plants project is the latest effort by Ohio's Black River Audubon to bring more wildlife to the revitalized property.

This past Saturday morning, a group of volunteers took advantage of a break in the rainy spring weather to gather at a pocket-size park in downtown Elyria, Ohio. Birders with binoculars around their necks shoveled dirt to cover the roots of slender saplings. High school students pulled up invasive plants and laughed as a small, surprised toad jumped up one girl’s arm. Other volunteers used their hands to smooth the dirt around freshly planted wildflowers.

The two-acre property, known officially as Black River Audubon Park, might seem like an unlikely place to look for birds and other wildlife. It sits near the industrial center of the city, surrounded by businesses, homes, and dilapidated factories. It also features a sharp slope leading down to the Black River, once so polluted it was popularly known as “the river of fish tumors.”  

The plot was donated to the city in 2011, and the Black River Audubon Society has spent the past seven years cleaning up trash, glass, and iron scraps from the two-acre park that now bears its name. The tree-planting event on Saturday, May 19 was the organization’s latest effort to revitalize the small park and encourage the return of both birds and people to the river’s shores. Funding for the seedlings and the event was provided by Audubon’s Coleman and Susan Burke Center for Native Plants.

Volunteer Desiree Ortiz helps remove invasive garlic mustard. Photo: Allison Farrand

Jim Jablonski, president of the Black River Audubon Society, worked with other board members to secure the Burke grant and organize the native plants project. “I thought it was the perfect opportunity to turn this backward area of town into a nature preserve,” Jablonski says. 

Holly Brinda, Elyria’s mayor, started the day by welcoming the 20 volunteers and planting a chestnut oak tree. “I appreciate all the efforts folks have put into that park and so I wanted to support them,” Brinda says of the event. “It’s important for folks to become familiar with native plants, and planting native plants also helps support the native wildlife habitat there and we want to do whatever we can to support our bird population.”

The weather held off all morning as students from Elyria High School, members of the Sunrise Rotary Club, and volunteers from both Black River Audubon and the Western Reserve Land Conservancy pulled up invasive plants such as garlic mustard, seeded beds of wildflowers, and planted native tree seedlings.

The volunteers helped plant 12 different trees in the park, according to Andy Lance, the conservation chair for Black River Audubon. The planted species included berry-producing trees such as black cherry and red cedar, nut trees such as bur oak and butternut, and flowering shrubs such as blackhawk viburnum. Lance hopes the native trees will provide both food and shelter to birds, including Cedar Waxwings, Baltimore Orioles, Orchard Orioles, and Northern Cardinals, Ohio’s state bird. He also hopes the flowering shrubs, along with wildflowers such as milkweed and New England astor, will attract pollinators like monarch butterflies to the park.

“We planted some really nice trees,” says Kate Pilacky, a Black River Audubon board member and associate field director for Western Reserve Land Conservancy. “You’ve got your cottonwoods and boxelders that were there and some nice sycamores on the property, but we really increased the food and the cover for the bird species.”

Lance and Pilacky purposefully planned their tree planting to be part of a county-wide day of service where residents pick up trash, weed gardens, and clean cemeteries. With help from the Sunrise Rotary Club, Black River Audubon was also able to plant six more trees in another residential park near the river. And at the end of the day, each volunteer got to take home a seed packet or seedling to “expand the impact” of the project, Lance says.

A Brown-headed Cowbird forages next to a newly planted blackhaw viburnum. Photo: Allison Farrand

Eventually, Jablonski hopes Black River Audubon Park will have benches, picnic tables, and educational signage to help people in the community learn about the trees and animals in the area. But the park’s main purpose is to serve birds and other wildlife, including deer and a family of foxes that already call the riverbank home. “My goal I’ve been telling people all along is I want to see the wildlife coming back very close to downtown,” Jablonski says. “I hardly care if people went there; I want birds and butterflies coming in there.”

Thanks to larger cleanup efforts by local governments and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Black River and its banks have seen huge improvements since the days when the water was tinted orange from industrial pollution. “This is a good example of a river that 40 years ago you wouldn’t want to touch the water and had this ominous name,” Lance says. “They’ve made tremendous headway, and maybe our project is a small contribution to that.”

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